Gloriana's Bloody Age

Massacre and Misrule in Elizabethan Ireland

Chapter 7 : The War Against Civilians 1600 - 03

By 1599 Sir Arthur Chichester had adopted a policy of unrestricted attacks upon the civilian population surrounding Carrickfergus. An intelligence report to Sir George Carey recounting events in the north noted that 'The garrison of Knockfergus being very strong, both of horse and foot, have lately made a great prey upon the enemy, killing some men, but very many women and children'. The following year Chichester extended his spoiling attacks on the indigenous population to the extent that he claimed there was no one within twenty miles of the town. In other parts of the island, wherever crown forces made gains, the locals were subject to indiscriminate attacks. In January 1600, a raid by Sir Samuel Bagenal on an Irish camp in Co. Down took no notice of age or sex of their victims 'whither I went, and at the break of day burnt their houses, which they call their camp, cut some of his best men's throats…yet men, women, and children were burnt in their houses'. The following month the English commissioners of Munster reported that 'our several garrisons have been stirring in some killing of their men, women, and children, and burning both their villages and a great quantity of their corn'. Meanwhile, Chichester ramped up the hostility in his letters as the new campaigning season began.

Figure 8 Sir Arthur Chichester
Figure 8 Sir Arthur Chichester was vocal in his preference for untrammelled aggression and recourse to famine as a tool of war. After the war he became Lord Deputy of Ireland. (Belfast Harbour Commissioners)

In his letter to Robert Cecil in May 1600, Chichester noted, 'The traitors in many places receive blows, though we kill them not in multitudes…It is famine, not the sword, that must reduce this country to what is expected'. Chichester continued 'dwelling among them…spoiling their cattle and killing all that is found'. Chichester persisted with his letters to Cecil, in which he extolled the virtue of famine in the suppression of the Irish, as direct attacks could not kill enough of them. Chichester considered 'a million of swords will not do them so much harm as one winter's famine'. The Earl of Ormond, one of the pre-eminent Old English lords of Ireland, had already called for an extension of scorched earth tactics used during the first and second Desmond wars 'In my opinion, the speediest way to end this war will be by fire and sword, as I did end the former war with Desmond in Munster; which (their corn and houses being burned) did bring famine amongst them, that they were driven to eat one another'. However, it would take time to create famine; meanwhile, direct attacks would suffice.

In the summer of 1601, Chichester gave full expression to his pacification theories. He led a small flotilla of boats across Lough Neagh and landed troops on the Tyrone shore. Chichester 'burnt and destroyed along the lough, even within four miles of Dungannon, where we kill[ed] man, woman, child, horse, beast, and whatsoever we found'. He continued, describing his attack on an Irish village 'The last service…we lighted upon him and killed him, his wife, sons, daughters, servants, and followers, being many, and burnt all to the ground'. Tyrone was so shocked by the unexpected assault he constructed a series of earthwork forts along the eastern shore to guard against this happening again. In response, Chichester shifted his raids to the southern end of the lough. Chichester descended on Clanbrassil in July, where his men 'killed such people as we lighted upon, and cut as much corn as possibly we might for the time and number'.

Elsewhere in Ireland, attacking civilians proved a popular option for Elizabeth's officers. In the northwest, Docwra raided from the forts at Derry into Inishowen. At Inch Island, 150 were killed; there was no resistance as these were all civilians. In Munster, officers like Captain George Flower indiscriminately killed men, women, and children. Even with unrestricted warfare, Chichester was unsatisfied with the results. In October 1601 Chichester opined, 'We follow a painful, toilsome, hazardous and unprofitable war by which the Queen will never reap what is expected until the nation be wholly destroyed or so subjected as to take a new impression of laws and religion, being now the most treacherous infidels of the world and we have too mild spirits and good consciences to be their masters'. He later suggested that the Irish were only suitable as slaves.

The siege and battle of Kinsale proved a bloody fulcrum of the war. Lord Deputy Mountjoy had penned a Spanish landing force inside the medieval walls of Kinsale from September 1601. Tyrone and his allies marched to their aid, but Mountjoy defeated them in battle on Christmas Eve. The overthrow of Tyrone's army put him irrevocably on the road to defeat, but Lord Mountjoy had not yet conquered Ulster. When the English army returned north in force during the spring and summer, they continued in their attacks on civilians and native agriculture with the avowed goal of starting a famine. Mountjoy planned to bring about a betrayal of Tyrone by using starvation to pressure his followers and allies. He did not intend to extirpate the Irish, though some of his officers, like Chichester, had no problem with that outcome. Mountjoy was troubled by the killing of civilians as 'it grieveth me to think that it is necessary to do it'. Nevertheless, he pressed on with a strategy leading to a calamity for the Irish in Ulster.

Mountjoy’s scorched earth policy coincided with an agricultural collapse brought on by years of war. The results were devastating. Thousands lay dead on the roads, and Fynes Moryson reported he had ‘daily seen the lamentable state of that country wherein we found everywhere men dead of famine’. Corpses lay unburied along the highways across Ulster, and the earl of Tyrone later claimed from his exile in Rome that almost 60,000 had died. Some English captains railed against the rampant attacks on civilians, but others were enthusiastic about its application. Far to the south, after a small Irish garrison had surrendered on Dursey Island, Co Cork, the victorious English forces swept the small island clear of its inhabitants. Perhaps 300 were killed, with reports that many were bound and thrown off the nearby cliffs.

The famine spread southwards, and by 1603, all of Ireland was in its grip. Finally, the war ended with Tyrone’s submission at Mellifont on 30 March 1603. However, he did not know that just days before Queen Elizabeth I had died. Nevertheless, with Elizabeth dead Mountjoy (who was aware of her passing) granted Tyrone generous terms, and within months both men were off hunting in England with Elizabeth’s successor, King James I and VI.

Elizabeth’s reign and the war ended just six days apart, but its legacy still echoes in the troubles that continue to beset Ireland. So, after all this, we return to our original issue. The glorification of Elizabeth, who is seen by many in Britain as England’s greatest monarch. As may now be evident, there is more than enough reason to take the contrary view. Though the Elizabethan period may be considered a golden age for England, it also stands true that her reign and legacy in Ireland were (and still are) defined by war, bloodshed and brutality.